Shackelford, '21: Reflections from Studying Abroad in Cuba

April 9, 2020
A&S junior reflects on her time in Cuba and the impact from COVID-19

Imani Shackelford is a junior at the University of Richmond where she is majoring in Visual and Media Arts Practice and minoring in Latin American, Latino, & Iberian Studies. She currently works as a Marketing Assistant for the Weinstein Center for Recreation and as Communications Assistant for the A&S Communciations Collective. Through her experience and the knowledge she has gained from these positions, she aspires to pursue graphic design post-graduation. In addition to this, she is also passionate about education and hopes to volunteer as a tutor for children in the African American and Latin American communities in her hometown of Los Angeles, California.

When speaking of Havana, Cuba most people immediately think of the colorful buildings, beautiful beaches, and an overall sensation that you have traveled into a completely different time period. While true (and during my time in the country I was constantly fascinated by the multitude of 1950’s American cars which flooded Havana), I believe what truly defines the island is the endurance of its people and their ability to face any challenge that comes their way.

When I was looking for places to study abroad for the spring semester of 2020, I immediately thought of Cuba. After having visited for two weeks in 2015, I knew that when the time came, I would want to return for a full academic semester. However, it was not a simple task being one of the first two students from the University of Richmond to study abroad in Cuba. Despite the doubts and concerns of my academic advisors who were unfamiliar with the education system there, I chose to study in Havana for three months without having any idea about the challenges that I would encounter.

Upon my arrival to Cuba, I was instantly immersed in a culture completely different from my own. As eager as I was to explore the city and discover new places, I was even more curious to interact with local Cubans. For more than 100 years, Cuba and the US have had a complex history consisting of a heated stand-off during the Cuban Revolution. Due to this strenuous relationship, I was curious about the opinion Cubans had on American visitors like myself. Despite our history, I was reassured many times from locals that they believed, “el problema no es con la gente, es con el gobierno” (“the problem is not with the people, it’s with the government”). It was because of this open-minded mentality towards American people that I often felt a sense of hospitality and kindness from the majority of locals that I met.

Through the help of some friends I had made, I was able explore many of the hidden gems of Cuba. The city of Vedado, a city 15 minutes to the west of Havana, was filled with Spanish-Colonial buildings whose façade had started to crumble, hundreds of roaming street cats, and an abundance of beautiful palm trees. I encountered something new and exciting every day.

However, as I explored all the elements which gave Cuba such a rich culture, there were daily challenges which clouded each day. The lack of a solid transportation infrastructure, sanitary restrooms, and frequent power outages, in combination with the restricted use of Wi-Fi to hotels and designated Wi-Fi-parks made being a student very difficult.  

On March 12, 2020, after not connecting to the internet for four days, we quickly received news of students around the world being ordered to return to their home states in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Although Cuba had few confirmed cases at the time, within the week our program was forced to close.

As I sat with my host mother, devastated that my semester was cut short, she assured me that like every other challenge I had faced during my stay, “esto también pasara. Este es el comienzo del regereso, y tristemente, el primer paso es irse.” (“this too will pass. This is the beginning of the return, and sadly, the first step is to leave.”). She told me that with every problem came a solution, even if at the moment it was clouded with doubt and unknown outcomes. With every problem she faced while living in Cuba, she learned to adjust and refuse to give into a mentality of fear. She told me, “Mi niñael miedo es la enfermedad. Este es un momento de cambio rápido, y al igual que con todo lo demás, nos ajustaremos”(“My girl…fear is the sickness. This is a time of rapid change, and just like with everything else, we will adjust.”).

These are the words that I will always remember Cuba by. Not by the challenges I faced or the amazing experiences I had, but by the presence of the mentality to preserve and approach each obstacle without fear.